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Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter Discusses North Korea's Latest Missile Launch


As we've just heard, there are divisions over what the U.S. should do about North Korea. And now we're going to get the views of Ash Carter. He was secretary of defense in the Obama administration. He's a physicist. He's been working on nuclear weapons policy and ballistic missile defense for decades. Carter speaks of the need to meet the North Korean challenge with coercive diplomacy, with emphasis on both defense and deterrence. Defense would be the ballistic missile interceptors that he had a role in deploying and increasing over the past six years.

ASHTON CARTER: I am confident that the interceptors that we have deployed in Alaska and California are capable of intercepting ballistic missiles that originate in North Korea and that are poised to strike in the United States if they succeed in developing and deploying such missiles.

SIEGEL: It is said that the kind of missile the North Koreans just shot could have decoys that would throw off the ballistic missile defenses we could aim at it. I've seen a figure of 70 percent of the confidence we would have in a successful anti-missile missile. Are you really confident with, you know, absolute certainty that we could shoot a North Korean missile out of the sky?

CARTER: Well, nothing's ever absolutely certain in military affairs. But I have as much confidence in the ballistic missile defense system as I do in any of our thoroughly tested military systems. And the circumstance that you cite is one that we've foreseen. That doesn't mean that our missile defenses, if this threat continues to evolve, won't continue to need to be improved and adapted. But remember; we started this one six years ago. Looking way down the road, if this course continues we're going to have to increase both the number and the sophistication of our missile defenses. And I hope that the team that comes after me is constantly looking ahead and even as we did six years ago to make sure that at this moment we weren't scrambling to deploy a missile defense. We'd already deployed one.

SIEGEL: You have said that you are not - I'm quoting now - "not in the camp of people who believe that North Korea has nuclear weapons and if we simply leave them alone it'll just settle down." Why not? Why wouldn't a nuclear North Korea behave like, say, a nuclear China, which was described as a fanatical, irrational state when it first was going nuclear and now accepts the logic of deterrence?

CARTER: Because North Korea's behavior over time has been very different from that. And so if you think it's going to settle down to what Deng Xiaoping's China or Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union did, which was in possession of nuclear weapons but not threatening to use them every day - although I remind you in the Cold War there were some rough patches like the Cuban missile crisis. But North Korea's not like that. And I just - look; I've dealt with the North Koreans. I've been there. So I wish it would settle down, but I have to respectfully disagree with those who think that that is a safe course. I would prefer not to be on that course.

SIEGEL: But if, in fact, that's your view of North Korea, could you imagine the North Koreans going for a deal that was, say, freezing the nuclear weapons program in exchange for lifting sanctions? Do you think that they would be normal enough to accept the logic of that kind of diplomacy and adhere to it?

CARTER: There have been short periods in the last 25 years when I've been associated with defense policy with respect to North Korea where that kind of diplomacy has succeeded for a period of time. That may be what our secretary of state and secretary of defense are trying to accomplish today. I obviously can't speak for the team that's in there now. But the way you do it, Robert, is not to wait until North Korea does something and then punish them with sanctions. That's important to do. It's satisfying to do. But you've got to get out in front of the decision and say to North Korea, no more missile tests. If you do test this is what's going to happen to you, and if you don't test this is what you might get - probably not from us, but maybe from China.

SIEGEL: To pick up, though, on the need for deterrence, I assume that for deterrents to be successful that the threat to use force has to be credible. Are there, in fact, credible scenarios for either pre-emptive strikes against North Korea or fighting a ground war on the Korean Peninsula? Or do those options just seem unrealistic when they're presented at - when they're put on the table?

CARTER: Well, the essence of deterrence on the Korean Peninsula means that if North Korea starts a war on the Korean Peninsula they need to know and should know with certainty that the consequence will be the destruction of the North Korean armed forces and the destruction of the North Korean regime. I am confident that that would be the outcome. I believe not only could South Korea be defended, but the North Korean regime could be eliminated. I hope they know that and see that because, of course, the essence of deterrence is the potential enemy knowing that if they choose war that will end up an unfortunate course for them.

SIEGEL: Former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, now director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, thanks for talking with us today.

CARTER: Good to be with you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.